of us has his or her own way of traveling, of selecting
from the vast number of new experiences travel engenders,
the few that determine why we go, what we remember most,
what works best with our own personality and pleasures.
By stepping outside our normal comfort level, we are
free to create our own idea of what is a good time.
For me, like the Roman army, I travel on my stomach.
And perhaps my dancing shoes.
I'm good with food in every country I've visited, but
especially in Greece. I am not good with museums; I
will visit them with you if you insist. I seldom visit
on my own- unless there are textiles. But if you want
to pop in to this restaurant here to try the loukoumathes
(fried dough in honey), or that one across the way to
try that chef's fresh Tuna, or souvlaki and grilled
peppers served on paper from the stand under the trees
at the intersection in Lutsa- I'm the first one ready
The friends I have made in Greece and the places I love
most, are centered around food; often in the meeting
of people who later became friends, the first encounter
was over food in some form. My connection eventually
extended not only to the people I met, but also to the
type of land they live on and the kind of food that
grows there. The dance floor came second.
There is a true sense of hospitality in Greece. Is it
something in the unending summer sunshine that extends
to the souls of the people I have met that created their
warm, welcoming qualities? Is it their closeness to
nature, the love they have for natural things? For understanding
and accepting human nature? Whatever has created it,
I have found that Greek people pay tremendous attention
to being hospitable, especially to strangers. Would
you expect anything less from a country which boasts
of a God of Hospitality, Zeus?
The passion growing in me for this country and its food
expanded exponentially with each visit and has grown
even more since I have been living here. The more I
am here the more the pieces of my own puzzle come together.
And the most elemental meeting ground has been food.
This is not surprising. Eating here is a social event;
it is, more often than not, the norm, not the exception,
to meet friends and go for something to eat and drink
My bias toward Greece and its cuisine comes naturally;
my grandparents passed down rich traditions and a tremendous
love for their birthplace. But I had a limited view
of this vast country, that of life as it is lived in
the far eastern islands. As I learn more about the land
in different areas of Greece, the varied terrain and
the vegetation that grows there, I realize that the
people, land and food are intertwined and engender a
strong sense of place. There are many regional styles,
indeed untold numbers of styles and flavors cooked within
the area called Greece today. My childhood vision was
of a small part.
No matter what area a recipe comes from, its beauty
is in its simplicity; it is eaten fresh, picked fresh
in season; there is olive oil and an abundance of fruits
and vegetables. The majority of meals contain plant
protein. It is truly healthy food.
There is an unexpectedness about food here that comes
in many forms: rounding a curve in a country lane in
Palea Epidavros and coming upon a family of at least
four generations eating a late lunch under mandarin
trees, the table less than a foot from the road; or
walking down a desolate alley in which a bright patch
of vegetables finds enough water and sun to grow from
discarded seeds; a snack bar on Ikaria clinging to a
steep mountain road with a few tables and chairs set
out across the roadway opens on an unbeatable view of
mountain vistas, somehow increasing the flavor of the
simple food. And then there was that night driving with
my friend Nana on a dark, deserted country road, when
she suddenly pulled the car to the right and parked.
Admonishing me and Irini to wait, she disappeared for
a moment into the shadows of the trees, only to reappear
in a short time with ripe figs, the seeds about to burst
from their skins. For a long time I thought she had
a built-in divining rod, that she had somehow seen the
figs in the dark, but I have learned over time that
ripe figs have a sweet, distinctive aroma all their
own that compelled her to stop.
This sense of adventure with food has propelled me toward
eating in a parking garage, a Butcher's shop, a restaurant
on a pebbled beach and numerous private homes encompassing
various lifestyles that opened new doors into others'
thinking, extending my understanding of this country
and its people.
Food here is plentiful and intertwined with life. It
is an aromatic adventure simply to walk a village road
or city neighborhood street. Color is everywhere. Many
full gardens grow behind houses; but mini patches of
herbs or peppers or melons can also be found growing
in odd places in recycled 5-gallon cans. Friends invite
you- indeed, insist- you take something home with you,
something they have made or produced, picked or gathered.
Nature constantly invites you to touch, to taste, to
smell. The inevitable can or pot of Basil, especially
the short, bushy variety with tiny leaves grown by the
back door or in the courtyard of churches and houses
all over Greece to keep mosquitoes away, becomes an
adventure: rub your hands gently through the leaves
and then catch the heady aroma that clings. Heaven.
And just one more of the sensual pleasures that are
The air out of doors can be just as compelling when
it is full of animal smells and vegetation. In rural
areas goats, chickens and geese live in small pens close
to the house or roadway. In city or country, olives
drip from trees hanging over fences and garden walls.
Lemons, mandarins, figs ripen brazenly, taunting over
whitewashed walls, their aromas wafting, distinctive,
beckoning. Touchable. Grapes on arbors less than five
feet from the road are full with juice, sweet with scent.
Pomegranates take full sun in a village parking lot.
This intimacy with food and the land begins early. From
the time children are able they get involved with food
in one way or another. It may be by helping mother or
grandmother gather herbs and vleeta (wild greens), knead
and bake bread (or prepare it, proof it and send it
to the village baker!), make cheese, tend gardens or
prepare meals. By the time they are grown, they have
probably harvested vegetables, wild mushrooms, snails,
seafood and fruits. Many have killed a goat or chicken,
dug dirt, planted seeds, pruned trees, brought in olives.
Eating is a pleasure and people want to feel good about
eating. But food is not merely necessary for sustenance;
it is necessary for enriching the soul. Thus it is often
just as important to take part in the full cycle, perhaps
by crushing grapes after picking them, or by visiting
the olive oil cooperative while olives just harvested
are being pressed. Imagine the aromas that envelop,
the air fruity and warm, as you stand with a portion
of fresh-baked bread in hand for a first taste of the
new oil crop.
This attention to the details of growing, gathering
or preparing the food one eats is an important part
of growing up here. And discussing the meal being eaten
is as important as eating it. Even in its simplest forms
it is revered, honored, reviewed; its fine and weak
points exposed without rancor. Its color, taste, and
smell appreciated. Eating is done with passion, and
food discussed passionately.
And talk you will about the food. About the preparation,
the freshness, the flavors. About who caught it, brought
it, bought it. And from where.
Part of its preciousness is in its scarcity. Until recently
the majority of the food in Greece was eaten fresh in
season and grown locally. Imported foods were available,
but at extremely high prices; and one's trust in refrigeration-
or the electric company with its frequent power outages-
understandably lacking. Thus, if it wasn't available
fresh-grown locally, very few people could afford the
luxury of eating foods out of season. Food that graced
tables was strictly seasonal.
Even now when food from other areas, other countries
is readily available, the first tomatoes of the season
are really something to look forward to; they will also
be the first fresh local tomatoes in six months. And
for that alone they will be special. They will be something
to talk about. And eat with zest.